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I'm not sure why I bother, and I may be casting pearls before swine, but I've recently taken up my old passtime of arguing against the rationalists on real_philosophy who believe in so-called "a priori synthetic" truths.

Why the Standard Kilogram example is neither "a priori" nor "synthetic"

This particular post of mine was in followup to a previous thread, within which I explained to someone why Euclidean geometry is not "a priori" true. The strangest thing here is, he began by admitting that Euclidean geometry is false. And then--incredibly--still proceeded to argue that, even though it's false, if it weren't it would be true "a priori", in other words we would just know it was true and could be sure of that without ever having to measure anything or check whether it was really true. (It sure is a good thing not everyone accepted Kant's original argument for this, otherwise we would never have discovered it was false!)

Last night at a party, I had a great conversation with a previous philosophy grad student at Rutgers, regarding Philosophy of Mind. According to him, the point of view at Rutgers is that "Daniel Dennett is Satan, but Paul Churchland is the real Satan". This made me chuckle, as Dennett has a legendary "hero" status in my mind, and I see as one of the most brilliant philosophers alive. And Churchland is someone I've been wanting to read when I get a chance, and expecting to agree with much of what he says. Although later, he also mentioned that there was a much bigger difference between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy, than the "intramural" disputes between East and West coast schools of analytic philosophy in the US. I commented that I was growing increasingly frustrated with analytic philosophy, particularly with the type of naive arguments I see on real_philosophy, because they rely far too heavily on a rigid system of logic and don't pay enough attention to the role of language and the ambiguity in the meaning of any statement or text. Logic is a very dangerous thing when used with vague and imprecise words, which is always the case outside of mathematics or hard science, and sometimes even the case inside these areas as well. The continental philosophers are conscious of these ambiguities and multiple meanings, and do not hide from it but instead openly admit and confront it. I guess it's mainly the rationalists I have a problem with. Although sometimes I feel like the only role of empiricist philosophers is simply to shoot down the misguided rationalists. If the rationalists didn't come up with so many cockameme arguments in the first place, perhaps the empiricists would have nothing left to write about. Then again, I'm probably just saying this because I get a very indirect experience of how things work in philosophy, mostly from online discussions and arguments with philosophy grad students, rarely from reading the philosophers themselves. Oh--one thing the former Rutgers guy mentioned was that he found it somewhat depressing that it is hard for analytic philosophers to argue that they have made any progress on anything yet--in other words, that there has been any real convergence in the opinions of the experts toward something. I actually have gotten the impression that there has been such a convergence on certain issues, although it happens more slowly than in the sciences. Nevertheless, he claimed that the only examples he could think of where there was strong support for such a convergence were in logic itself, for instance, Russell's overthrow of Cantor's naive set theory.

Comments

( 54 comments — Leave a comment )
onhava
Nov. 5th, 2006 03:23 am (UTC)
This stuff gives me a headache, because I can never figure out precisely what people in philosophy mean by their words. Does "analytic" just mean "true by definition"? If so, the kilogram thing is obviously analytic. If that's not what "analytic" means, what does it mean? And if that is what analytic means, how is there a sharp analytic/synthetic distinction? How nontrivial a consequence of definitions does something have to be before it's no longer true "by definition"? Also, I get the weird sense that some people seem to think definitions have some truth beyond the social agreement that this is what we mean by a given word.

As for "a priori" vs. "a posteriori", that one confuses me even more, because I can't make much sense of the concepts. I use "a priori" sometimes, and I know what I mean by it, but usually I mean prior to something, not prior to everything. If that makes any sense. I mean, the only completely a priori concepts we can have must be encoded in our brain structure by evolution, but there's no reason to think those things reflect some deepest level of reality. They probably approximate it in some way, or they would be maladaptive. But I get the impression that people tend to think "a priori" implies true. The more I try to figure out what is really meant by these words, the more mixed up I get.

And now I just looked at the philosophy community where there's a post about quantum physics and determinism. Even the more well-informed people there seem to think quantum mechanics is inherently nondeterministic. I wish there were a way to re-educate everyone on that, but the idea seems too pervasive in both the popular literature and in textbooks.
onhava
Nov. 5th, 2006 03:32 am (UTC)
Actually maybe I kind of see what people are getting at. There are things that we think are true for empirical reasons (e.g. "objects in motion tend to remain in motion"). There are things that are true by definition (e.g. "given two points on a circle, they are equidistant from the center"). Then there are things that are true for nontrivial, non-empirical reasons. For instance, we might say Fermat's Last Theorem is true, but to say it's true "by definition" seems like a stretch. I mean, it is in some sense true by the definition of the natural numbers and of exponentiation and so on. But it's a highly nontrivial consequence of those definitions. So in that sense it's not "analytic", in the sense that it would be a little perverse to say it's true "by definition", even if in some strict sense maybe it is.

The trouble is that there are two fundamentally different notions of "true" at work here: "true" as in providing a good description of the observable world, and "true" as in following logically from some axioms -- and it's a mistake to conflate them. I gather that people are wanting to call the former "synthetic a posteriori true" and the latter "synthetic a priori true." If that's what's going on, fine, but it seems like the same ideas can be expressed in much plainer (and conceptually cleaner) language without as much unwieldy baggage.
(no subject) - onhava - Nov. 5th, 2006 03:32 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 5th, 2006 03:56 am (UTC) - Expand
spoonless
Nov. 5th, 2006 03:50 am (UTC)

Does "analytic" just mean "true by definition"?

Well, that's not how it's defined. I do say in my post that that's what it "means", but by that I mean that that's what it implies... or that, in my opinion, that's how it should be understood.

Philosophers do argue about the definition of analytic. Since you're a physics/math person, I think the easiest way I can get across the meaning is this: analytic means trivial. Kant originally defined it to mean a statement whose predicate is the same as its antecedant. That is, if you can do a series of language substitutions and wind up with something like A is A, then the statement isn't saying anything non-trivial... so it's called analytic. Later, Kripke (I think) started using it to mean a statement that can be proven deductively within a system of axioms. Which I think is more-or-less equivalent, although some philosophers argue that the two definitions are different.

I use "a priori" sometimes, and I know what I mean by it, but usually I mean prior to something, not prior to everything.

Want to hear something really funny? The philosophy guy last night told me there is a well-known philosopher at Rutgers (Fudor is his name I think... my memory is failing) who argues that "all concepts are a priori". :) I told him I saw that as completely untenable and he said "yeah, that's what everyone says at first. But I guess you have to read his book."

By the way, there is a difference between having innate concepts or intuitions coded into your brain (which may or may not be right) to believing in "a priori" justification. It's usually the latter that philosophers are interested in and not the former. Although I do see them as pretty intertwined, since I think it's the existence of the former which has led to making the latter mistake.
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 5th, 2006 04:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - onhava - Nov. 5th, 2006 04:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 5th, 2006 10:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Nov. 6th, 2006 09:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - killtacular - Nov. 6th, 2006 02:02 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - onhava - Nov. 6th, 2006 11:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - killtacular - Nov. 8th, 2006 10:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - onhava - Nov. 5th, 2006 04:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 5th, 2006 09:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 6th, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 6th, 2006 08:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Nov. 6th, 2006 12:07 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firmament - Nov. 12th, 2006 07:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
ex_memepr0g
Nov. 5th, 2006 04:02 am (UTC)
Argh. I don't see the point in being stuck in a very rigid system of logic. To me, that's barely even philosophy at all. I mean, I'm a rational person, but I don't think that I am one of those 'analytic philosopher' types. *sigh* From what I'm reading about analytic philosophy, it seems as if you're losing a lot of meaning in what they're talking about...
spoonless
Nov. 5th, 2006 04:21 am (UTC)

I'm a rational person, but I don't think that I am one of those 'analytic philosopher' types.

There are many good analytic philosophers--Dennett being one of them. I didn't mean to make it sound like I was bashing analytic philosophy. If I went into philosophy, it would most likely be analtyic... I was just mentioning that I'm starting to get a little "frustrated" with it sometimes. Maybe it came across too strong. If anything, I'm usually more on the opposite side. I'd suggest giving it a chance before passing judgement.

Also, while I'm 100% against the "rationalist" school of thought in philosophy (Kant being the archetypical example), I want to be clear here about how philosophers use the term "rationalist" as opposed to another more common-language usage that is also floating around. A rationalist in philosophy is usually defined to be someone who believes in "a priori synthetic" truths, ie that some things you can know are true (such as things you can derive from pure reason) without ever experiencing them in the world.

Outside of philosophy, it can also just mean someone who advocates reason over faith. Obviously, by that definition I am a staunch rationalist. I'm always pro-reason if it's being compared to something as evil and destructive as faith. But the missing ingredient here is experience, something that pure reason leaves out. When it comes to the more gentle conflict between rationalists and empiricists among philosophers, I'm pretty much always on the side of the empiricists. (I can't ever remember reading a rationalist philosopher I liked... whereas I almost always like empiricist philosophers.)
(no subject) - ex_memepr0g - Nov. 5th, 2006 04:29 am (UTC) - Expand
omnifarious
Nov. 5th, 2006 04:22 am (UTC)

I think I would generally find actually participating in philosophical arguments to be tedious and pointless after a fairly short period of time. :-)

killtacular
Nov. 5th, 2006 10:52 pm (UTC)
in defense of philosophy
first, thanks for friending me, you seem smart plus you are not primarily a philosopher, I think (which is good for me, because I am).

a few points: if you want actual, good analytic philosophy, you should stay away from real_philosophy and read blogs written by practicing analytic philosophers (grad students or proffs). if you want one of my favorites that takes a definitely different view on philmath than you appear to, I would recommend easwaran's blog antimeta. if you want a very good one written by a prof (easwaran is an A.B.D., I believe), then I would recommend brian weatherson's thoughts arguments and rants. livejournal philosophy communities are not professionalized, which is why it is often naive. they are useful in that some smart people hang out there, but they are not useful in the sense that you get bogged down in repetitive arguments (i've been having more or less the argument you are having with cabrutus about 500 times, I think).

I actually have gotten the impression that there has been such a convergence on certain issues, although it happens more slowly than in the sciences. Nevertheless, he claimed that the only examples he could think of where there was strong support for such a convergence were in logic itself, for instance, Russell's overthrow of Cantor's naive set theory.

the problem as I see it is that philosopher's intellectual arena is logical space, while scientists intellectual arena is "physical space". since there is always logical space for disagreement while retaining internal consistency, there is much less of a chance for a consensus to emerge. however, I think you are right: it happens slower in philosophy, and the "consensus" that emerges has more dissenters than would exist for physics or other hard sciences (like, say, chemistry: that field (very broadly speaking) seems to have enough consensus to almost make it boring). then again, broadly speaking physics hasn't really made any converging moves in the last 20 odd years either, right?

. Logic is a very dangerous thing when used with vague and imprecise words, which is always the case outside of mathematics or hard science, and sometimes even the case inside these areas as well. The continental philosophers are conscious of these ambiguities and multiple meanings, and do not hide from it but instead openly admit and confront it

also: analytic philosophers realize this as well. that is one reason you see so much "sense talk": in order to further a conversation the analytic philosopher is attempting to specify the sense of a word being used, and thus reduce the vagueness and imprecision (of course, they aren't going to eliminate it). there is a lot of work in contemporary philosophy in metaphysics and the philosophy of language analyzing just this situation. continental philosophers are conscious of the ambiguities and admit it, but I don't see them confronting it, at least not in a rigorous way like good analytic philosophers do.

and as a total random aside I also had a good conversation with a dissertation-writing rutgers grad student at a bar last week. apparently rutgers grad students are interesting people :).
spoonless
Nov. 6th, 2006 07:19 am (UTC)
Re: in defense of philosophy
Cool, thanks for the info and comments, I will check out easwaran's blog when I get a chance, I've seen him post in friends' journals but hadn't ever checked it out.

then again, broadly speaking physics hasn't really made any converging moves in the last 20 odd years either, right?

Actually, there have been some really big new things in cosmology within the past 10 years. Within the past 5 years, we've measured the age of the universe for the first time... at 13.7 billion years, to within 1% accuracy. 20 years ago the best anyone could say was it was somewhere between 10 billion and 20 billion years old. That's a huge improvement! Also 10 years ago, it wasn't known whether the universe was "open or closed" and now, barring certain obscure theories that are generally disfavored, most everyone agrees that it's open. Both dark energy and dark matter were discovered within the past 20 years; actually, it may have been slightly longer for dark matter, I'm not sure. But the consensus for what dark matter is and whether it really exists has grown steadily and each year there is more and more agreed upon about what exactly it is. In particle physics, it was discovered that neutrinos have mass which was a big suprise... few people believed it at first, but only within the past 5 years or so has it become a fact. Support for things like supersymmetry and string theory have also been steadily growing, but we are still far from a consensus there.
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 6th, 2006 12:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - spoonless - Nov. 6th, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 6th, 2006 11:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - onhava - Nov. 6th, 2006 11:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - spoonless - Nov. 7th, 2006 01:35 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - onhava - Nov. 7th, 2006 02:43 am (UTC) - Expand
spoonless
Nov. 6th, 2006 07:24 am (UTC)
Re: in defense of philosophy
Oh, and continuing on big advances in cosmology in the past decade, inflation is another one. The idea is several decades old I think, but nowadays it has very strong experimental support, to the point where it is right on the verge of being an established fact rather than just a theory. (Inflation is the idea that during the first few moments after the big bang, the entire universe went through a phase where it expanded much faster than the speed of light, and then later slowed way down... but now it is just starting to accelerate its expansion again.)
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 6th, 2006 12:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - spoonless - Nov. 6th, 2006 06:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 8th, 2006 11:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - spoonless - Nov. 8th, 2006 10:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 9th, 2006 03:47 am (UTC) - Expand
firmament
Nov. 12th, 2006 07:03 pm (UTC)
Re: in defense of philosophy
My links page has some good academic blogs on it, too, that you might check out. Philosophers' Carnival also is a nice best-o-the-blogs roundup that happens every few weeks.
Re: in defense of philosophy - spoonless - Nov. 12th, 2006 07:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - firmament - Nov. 12th, 2006 08:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 12th, 2006 11:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - firmament - Nov. 13th, 2006 12:45 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 13th, 2006 02:27 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - firmament - Nov. 13th, 2006 02:47 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 13th, 2006 02:55 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - firmament - Nov. 13th, 2006 03:46 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: in defense of philosophy - killtacular - Nov. 13th, 2006 03:54 am (UTC) - Expand
easwaran
Nov. 6th, 2006 08:56 pm (UTC)
I just added you on killtacular's recommendation - I see that we've got several other friends in common too - surprising that I didn't recognize your username then!

Anyway, the way I've managed to make sense of the claim that euclidean geometry is synthetic a priori is that our experience of space is necessarily euclidean, even though the physical geometry of space is best described in a non-euclidean way. And I think there's probably something to that - which is sort of surprising, because the visual field actually has something more like projective geometry, but I guess stereo vision together with everything else gives us an experience as of 3d euclidean space. Presumably, even if we were to be in some sort of environment where non-euclidean facts about space were relevant, we would just experience things in some sort of distorted way, conceptualizing it as if it were euclidean.

As for the Dennett and Churchland hate, I imagine it focuses on far smaller details than one might expect. I don't know too much about phil mind, and I probably would side with Dennett on a lot of the issues. But I guess at Rutgers they work with Fodor and others, who seem to have some pretty strange views from what I can tell, about there being some "mentalese" language that explains how things work internally. I guess at Berkeley, the phil mind people work more on perception, so I don't know how it interacts with Fodor and Dennett and Churchland. I guess Chalmers is the other really big figure that comes up all the time in mind that hasn't been mentioned - I guess I can see where he's coming from, but I just don't see why we should think that there's something irreducibly mental.
spoonless
Nov. 6th, 2006 10:26 pm (UTC)
Pleased to meet you. Your antimeta blog looks very interesting. I remember seeing you just recently in this thread in Diane's journal (do you know her in person? If so, we may have hung out with some of the same people.) The whole HIV doesn't cause AIDS movement really pisses me off... of course, I haven't met Serge Lang or Duesberg so maybe if I had I would be more sympathetic.

As for the Dennett and Churchland hate, I imagine it focuses on far smaller details than one might expect.

Yeah, he started out making it sound like there was this huge rivalry and animosity between them, but ended up saying it really wasn't that big of a difference. I still don't really understand how computationalism, which is apparently some of what they do at Rutgers, differs from connectionism or any other sort of functionalism (if indeed they are both forms of functionalism). They all seem very closely related to me. I'm also not sure how Fodor's mentalese stuff fits in there, although presumably it has something to do with computationalism.
(no subject) - easwaran - Nov. 6th, 2006 10:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - killtacular - Nov. 6th, 2006 11:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
malathion
Nov. 11th, 2006 06:02 pm (UTC)
Btw, I don't see anything particuarly wrong with saying that a priori synthetic truth is possible (the most black and white example that Kant gives is that of mathematical propositions, such as 7+5=12), but that looks patently to be a posteriori truth.
firmament
Nov. 12th, 2006 07:05 pm (UTC)
Yay! My advisor is the real Satan! I'm sure he would be completely thrilled.

West Coast Phil 4 Life!
spoonless
Nov. 12th, 2006 07:43 pm (UTC)
I knew he was at San Diego, but I didn't realize he was your advisor... how awesome! You don't work on philosophy of mind stuff, though, do you?
(no subject) - firmament - Nov. 12th, 2006 08:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
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